As this website has reported numerous times, and as many people within the legal profession already know firsthand, many law firms are nudging employees to return to offices as COVID-19 fears fade. This has created much tension between management and employees at many shops since numerous employees do not understand why they need to spend time commuting to offices when they can just as easily perform their work from home. I was talking to a colleague recently who noted that it is much more difficult to get gossip about a workplace when people work remotely than when they are in an office, and forcing people to come to offices is making it easier for workers to gossip.
I worked at four different law firms before starting my own practice, and the rumor mill and gossiping at all of these firms was intense. People spent a fair amount of time during the workday kibitzing with coworkers and exchanging rumors about compensation, who would be promoted, who would be picked for certain assignments, and other subject matters. When a firm was doing poorly, the rumor mill was even more intense. Each time someone was let go at a law firm at which I worked, it was immediately apparent to everyone, and the rumor mill churned such that everyone had an opinion about the matter.
Rumors and gossiping are not good for law firms. Perhaps most importantly, this can lead to attorneys and staff devoting less time to their assignments if they are engaged in gossiping with coworkers. Moreover, gossiping can have a negative impact on a law firm since it can impact the perception people have for a firm. Law firms have gone under because rumors about finances and other issues have forced them into a death spiral as partners and staff leave for other shops. People naturally like to gossip and spread rumors either because it makes someone feel important that they know something that someone doesn’t or just to pass the time.
However, it is much more difficult to gossip with coworkers when people work remotely. This is partially because people often gossip when they organically see someone around the halls of an office or someplace else. It is much harder to have these organic interactions when people only interact over the phone or through text.
Moreover, people might be nervous if they gossip with one another virtually rather in person. People might not want to send text messages because lawyers especially know that such messages can come back to haunt them. Moreover, since many law firms require attorneys and staff to install tracking software on their personal phones, people might justifiably be concerned that their bosses might be able to see things that they text to coworkers.
People are also less likely to gossip while speaking over the phone than in person. There is a greater fear of being recorded when conversations happen over the phone since people cannot see what is being done on the other end of the line. Moreover, it is much harder for people to open up to one another when they are not seeing each other face to face.
There are also just some people that other people do not interact with when they are not in an office. For instance, there were many staff members in an office that I did not ever interact with unless I was in an office. However, staff often have the best gossip around an office since they overhear conversations or talk with brass in a way that is impossible for an associate attorney. As a result, being away from this channel of information can seriously impact the amount of gossip that spreads around an office.
Of course, no law firm boss is going to base their decision on whether to bring attorneys and staff back to an office based on how easy or difficult it is to spread gossip. However, one of the main reasons why law firms are forcing attorneys and staff back to offices is to build culture and so that it is easier for people to share information. Nevertheless, in-person work can also make it easier for attorneys to gossip and share rumors about a law firm.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at email@example.com.